Climate Change Could Lead to More Obesity, Researchers Say

September 13, 2022

Researchers have now suggested an additional aspect of climate change that may be problematic: greater obesity. Climate change is widely acknowledged to be a hazard to human health in numerous ways. Fossil fuel combustion has resulted in exponential increases in greenhouse gas emissions over the past 70 years, according to a commentary from researchers at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. They speculate that this trend may continue as extreme weather events encourage sedentary behavior, which in turn leads to increased use of fossil fuel-dependent transportation among obese people.

“When temperatures rise, people typically become less physically active and that’s associated not only with obesity prevalence but also with more use of gas-powered transportation,” according to study co-author Christian Koch, MD, PhD, FACP, MACE the director of the Fox Chase Cancer Center’s division of endocrinology.

It is therefore a two-way relationship. Obesity is projected to rise as climate change gets worse, and when it does, it will have a worsening effect on the ecosystem.

Potential Cancer Uptick

According to Dr. Koch, it is quite likely that as obesity rates grow, so will the prevalence of cancers linked to obesity. He points out that this covers a variety of tumors, including liver, breast, endometrial, esophageal, and colorectal cancers. Multiple myeloma, as well as malignancies of the thyroid, pancreas, kidney, and gallbladder, are other diseases that may have an association with obesity, according to Dr. Several factors, according to Koch, could put some people at a significantly higher risk for developing these illnesses. Obesity frequently results in increased insulin levels, which have been linked to the development of cancer. Additionally, he continues, estrogens produced by female adipose tissue have been linked to endometrial, breast, and ovarian malignancies.

“With this commentary, we’re trying to raise awareness about how things interconnect,” says Dr. Koch. “People need to know about these associations.”

Disproportionate Effect

Although it wasn't mentioned in the current article, it has long been known that low-income areas are disproportionately affected by obesity rates and climate change. This suggests that a rise in diseases like cancer may affect this population more severely than others. According to Erica Kenney, ScD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, addressing obesity on its own in these neighborhoods is difficult, particularly with regard to childhood obesity.

According to Dr. Kenney, there are numerous factors in a child's environment that can affect what they eat and how active they can be, making it a challenging issue to manage. When it comes to the onset of obesity, these two factors have the biggest impact.

“Even with school-based programs, there’s limited effect because what happens when they go home," she says. "What if their neighborhood lacks a place to play? That means they sit inside and watch TV for hours.”

According to a study in the journal Health & Place, childhood "neighborhood disadvantage" is strongly linked to adult obesity. Dr. Kenney further notes that it might be very challenging to reverse obesity once it has taken hold.

“It’s like any chronic disease,” she says. “Prevention is much easier than treatment. In the case of childhood obesity, that’s true at the highest possible level.

Multi-Level Approach

According to Dr. Koch, addressing all the dangers that are connected—climate change, obesity, cancer, and other health problems—requires a greater understanding of the issue. Pulling on one of these threads, though, will probably have a favorable impact on the others as well. For instance, if community-based initiatives can encourage people to stay active and use public transit less, that will be good for cancer rates and greenhouse gas emissions. Similar to this, pushing towns to promote shared rides and bus travel and motivating urban planners to include additional bicycle and walking lanes could continue to reduce risks.

“We know there is a bidirectional relationship between climate change and obesity,” says Koch. “That means strategies that improve the health of each individual can also have an effect on the planet.”

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